Electric bikes will be given more access to U.S. public lands. That was the U.S. Department of Interior’s August 2019 directive to the various land-managing agencies it oversees. But what exactly does that mean for e-bike riders?
As Noa Banayan, federal affairs manager at People for Bikes, explains, it could mean different things for each class of electric bicycle at each individual park, dam, or recreation area. So while this is good news for the electric bike community, it is nuanced. Noa took a few minutes to explain this new policy on The Electric Bike Podcast from EVELO. You can listen to that podcast and follow along with the transcript below.
People for Bikes
Armando Roggio: In August, 2019, the US Department of Interior laid out a framework that could allow folks riding electric bicycles, greater access to public land. Including lands managed by the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management. This could be great news for those of us who ride electric bikes.
My name is Armando Roggio and in this episode of The Electric Bike Podcast from EVELO, we’re going to speak with Noa Banayan, who is the federal affairs manager at People for Bikes. Noa, thank you so much for being with us.
Noa Banayan: Yes, thanks for having me.
Armando Roggio: Noa, would you tell us a little about yourself and then describe what you do for People for Bikes?
Noa Banayan: Sure. Well, my name’s Noa. I am based in DC. I’ve been working in policy for three years now and about only the past six months have been with People for Bikes. I am our federal affairs manager, so I have the past six months been learning anything and everything that has to do with federal policies pertaining to bicycles. Bicycle funding, how States get funding from the federal government. And a lot of that has been on the recreation side too. So, figuring out where we’re bikes are allowed on public lands and of course the distinction between conventional bikes and electric bikes.
Armando Roggio: What is your organization’s purpose or what is People for Bikes, “reason to be”, if you will?
Noa Banayan: Our goal is to make every bike ride better and to make it a better experience for all people who choose to ride their bikes. We are a trade association for the bicycle industry, so our membership on that side are, bike companies and bicycle product accessories, dealers, suppliers, retailers. But we also have a foundation that has … we have a grassroots network of over a million supporters across the country and our foundation does a lot. We offer grants to small projects that relate to biking and more advocacy too.
Electric Bike Access
Armando Roggio: The work People for Bikes does, particularly advocating for bikes, is one of the reasons that I asked you to join us, Noa. As you well know, on August 30th the US Department of Interior released a memorandum related to electric bike usage. Would you please talk a little about that, describe what it is and then maybe start to speak about its impact?
Noa Banayan: Absolutely. So yes, on August 30th, the Department of Interior put out a secretarial order. Basically this order, coming from the secretary of himself, Secretary Bernhardt, was a directive to the land management agencies within the Department of Interior. And I’ll get into, the agencies and their separate missions in a minute. But the directive was, here’s a framework for increasing access for e-bikes on our public lands.
Here are the ways that you can discern access on different types of infrastructure, whether that’s a bike lane on a road, in a national park, or a national surface singled trail within BLM. Regardless of where it is, here are the tools that we are offering you and the framework that we’re offering for each of these land management agencies to create their own policies for access and to decide where and what kinds of e-bikes are allowed on their biking opportunities. And because that was coming from the secretary of interior, that was a directive to the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Reclamation.
Armando Roggio: Maybe define or describe those agencies. What are the different sorts of lands they manage?
Noa Banayan: Sure. So National Park Service, of course, national parks all around. They actually came out with their own policy, their interim policy, the same day on August 30th, wanting to lead the charge on this. So of course, major public lands in national parks, there aren’t a lot of mountain biking experiences necessarily. Not a lot of natural surface single track. A lot more roads, gravel roads, fire roads, things like that where you might have a mountain biking experience but a lot more paved trails that you’ll find in national parks.
Bureau of Land Management is the other really big one for mountain biking, and if you talk to any mountain biker, they’ll have their favorite BLM spot. There’s a lot of natural surface single track opportunities and experiences that you can find in BLM lands and those are mostly out West.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has national wildlife refuges with some biking opportunities, and the Bureau of Reclamation is mostly known in the and the biking community for their reservoirs and sort of rim trails around the reservoirs. Again, mostly out west where their bike infrastructure has been built.
Armando Roggio: Each of these agencies needs to create policies for electric bikes. Would you talk about those policies and what someone who wants to ride an electric bike on public lands can expect.
Noa Banayan: Within the secretarial orders from August 30th, there was a brief timeline that they originally put out. So by September 12th, these agency had to at least begin the process of figuring out their interim policy, what is the law of the land until we go through a broader process. What that process looks like is up to each agency. And it really comes down to the land managers and the superintendents of these pieces of land. So superintendents for national parks, land managers for other public land units, and they have a lot of authority over these policies because one national park is going to be very different from another, same with any parcel of land and their BLM or Fish and Wildlife. So giving the authority to each local manager to discern what process would take place in their unit.
It’s something that we’ve seen a lot of. Maybe not a lot, but at least several public lands units, especially within the park service, recently put out there. Let’s see, I have a list here of some of them, I think Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Bryce Canyon, Acadia, they’ve all sort of put out some of their own policies to manage e-bike access and discern, “Well, maybe we want class ones and maybe class two and three, they’re not going to be okay on this national surface. But class one is allowed.” So, we are expecting probably within the next few days to see what these finalized processes will look like, where there’s going to be opportunity for public comment because part of the secretarial order was ensuring that these policies are subject to public notice and comment. And that’s really important to us too. And in that we definitely spent a lot of these advocates and companies that wants to do right by their riders.
So making sure that the folks who actually are going to be writing in those areas, the local mountain biking community or e-biking community, I’m sure that will be a growing thing too in these days, has their opportunity to weigh in and say, “Well, we think class one would be awesome on this surface, but maybe not class two and three.” But gravel road, it’s a bit wide. We can put them all out there. There’s more room and so that’s the process we’re in right now. We know that land managers and these agencies are busy collecting a lot of information from lots of their local communities, their riders, their local advocacy groups. Demoing e-bikes even. You have to ride an e-bike to know what it’s all about. Right? So that’s where we’re at right now.
Electric Bike Class Recognized
Armando Roggio: Noa, it’s interesting as you mentioned, the electric bike classes, — class one, class two and class three — that these definitions were recognized by the Department of Interior, is that correct?
Noa Banayan: Yep, they were.
Armando Roggio: You mentioned that some agencies are trying to decide when a class two electric bike will be allowed access to a given trail. Now, primarily the difference, as the listeners of our podcasts probably know, is that the class two electric bike has a throttle.
Now, many if not most, class two electric bikes are not some kind of commercial vehicle, but rather riders, many riders, especially new riders or riders with physical limitations or even older riders choose class two because it’s easier to start from a dead stop and then pedal once the bike is moving. Or it can be a safety mechanism, if you get tired or if you get injured. In fact, limiting someone to class one when that’s the only difference might be a form of age discrimination, right? So your organization, People for Bikes, are you trying to communicate with these agencies and explain some of the subtle differences that might not be perfectly clear from a technical definition of the classes?
Noa Banayan: Absolutely. We’ve been engaged in what has really been a public process for almost five years now. Each of these land management agencies, they know about e-bikes, they know there are people that want to ride them and they know that they require a certain amount of nuance and understanding how they work, where they make sense and who is using them. We have been participating in these round tables with several of these agencies alongside a lot of our partners and advocacy mainly to offer technical assistance and understanding the three different class systems, because it can get a little complicated if you’re new to the e-bike world. And making sure that land managers that want to demo these bikes, have the opportunity. So we’ve even put on some demo events over the past few years.
Not the Wild West
Armando Roggio: That letter you sent to agencies, I believe you shared a copy with me too. It had some recommendations. Do you want to mention those?
Noa Banayan: Sure. And I’ll just clarify. The letter I had shared with you is something we sent early August before this policy was announced. This was just to make our position clear as we had heard that this policy was something that would be coming soon from the Department of Interior. So, right. So we sent a letter up to Secretary Bernhardt, as well as the Forest Service, which you’ll note I haven’t been talking about. Forest Service falls under the Department of Agriculture. So while there’s fantastic recreation opportunities in Forest Service land, it doesn’t apply to this policy. So while that’s a separate issue, our position doesn’t necessarily change between DOI and then the US Forest Service. So, right. So, that letter that we sent up is just clarifying our position at the federal level, clarifying what we had been advocating for at the state level for the past five years or so too. And so trying to keep that consistent as to where we believe e-bikes should go on federal public lands.
Armando Roggio: So this new policy or new framework for electric bike policies, it clearly doesn’t allow complete access to public lands. You can’t just go out and start riding across the wilderness, right?
Noa Banayan: Right. I guess I’ve been so focusing on what the policy does, say it is really important in this specific issue to talk about what it doesn’t say and what it doesn’t mean. Because you’re right, there has been a lot of misinformation, and I think there was a big media frenzy right after the announcement. Basically just saying that, “E-bikes are going to be allowed on all public lands everywhere right now.” Which couldn’t be farther from the truth. I stand by how I explained it before, that secretarial order was a directive. It provided a framework. It didn’t say, “Okay, now the Grand Canyon is fully open to e-bikes, all classes, right now.”
And so a part of what we’ve been doing in the past 30 days or so is making sure that distinction is very clear because it is pretty nuanced. Makes it harder to describe, but I think makes it really important so that all the sensitivities that come with mountain biking access and e-mountain bikes, and e-bikes are heard and considered. And part of the conversation.
Armando Roggio: Noa, you mentioned the media coverage around this directive. One aspect of that coverage is centered around environmental impact. Some have argued that allowing electric mountain bikes, for example, on some trails will harm the environment. Did you want to speak to that a bit?
Noa Banayan: I can talk a little bit to that, sure. So we have … and I can share them with you, but on our e-bikes information page in our website, we have links to some studies that have been done that have addressed that that concern, at least for class one e-bikes and e-mountain bikes. And basically the findings were that that class one e-mountain bikes don’t have impacts to the natural surface, to the trails themselves, environmental impacts that are different from a conventional bike. I recently heard it referred to as an acoustic bike instead of an electric bike. And I also really like that distinction. So I keep thinking of that, but that’s what those studies have found.
I think we can all agree that more studies wouldn’t hurt, especially as it comes to class two and three and even more than the environmental impact, but the social impacts. And what is it like to have a trail where there are lot of e-bikes and e-mountain bikes even where conventional bikes have only been allowed for the past so many years. So we’re definitely supportive of more information there. But for now our concerns are more on the social impacts than the environmental impacts, at least as it relates to class one.
Armando Roggio: So what are some of the social impacts? Are these concerns about congestion? Or are there concerns about speed? What are the social impacts?
Noa Banayan: Yeah, I think that’s what most people would say. Especially, your hardcore public lands bikers and mountain bikers. The idea that something might be passing you that has more power than maybe your legs alone does. I guess, it’s a change. It’s a shifting paradigm of how we ride on our public lands. I mean, I’ll tell you from someone who has ridden an e-bike in these places and conventional bikes, it’s not that different. It’s really not. And congestion I understand is a concern. But I ride the C&O canal trail starting in Washington DC almost every weekend. And I don’t see a lot of e-bikes on there to be honest. But it is a national park. It is very congested already, but that’s pedestrians and cyclist alone.
So class one doesn’t go above 20 miles an hour, and class two we know also maxes out at 20 miles an hour. With the throttle of course might be a little shocking to see someone move on a bike that isn’t peddling.
But I don’t think that’s going to knock anyone off their bike. Class three maxes out at 28 miles an hour. And these are all speeds that anyone who regularly rides a bike can reach. Maybe 28’s a little on the high end, but at least 20 miles an hour. You’re on a flat roadway or going down a hill, you can reach that on your own. So I don’t think that there will be a huge social impact when it comes to putting e-bikes where they make sense in our public lands.
Electric Bike Benefits
Armando Roggio: Noa, you mentioned that a strong or maybe just a good cyclist can reach 20 miles per hour or more without a motor. One of the great benefits I think of an electric bike is that it can be a leveler. You can find a balance between riders. I had been on rides or with riders where I might be the strongest one in the group, and I was able to turn down or turn off the pedal assistance, and we all rode together enjoying each other’s company. And I have been the weakest rider, so that I had to turn up the pedal assistance to keep up. What do you think about that idea? What are some of the other benefits of an electric bike and do we include different social groups with electric bikes with this sort of policy we’ve been discussing?
Noa Banayan: Absolutely. And I think that’s one of the things we’re most excited about, is opening up access to these incredible public lands, basic riding experiences and landscapes that so many people wouldn’t have access to without a little boost in their pedal.
E-bikes, they’re the fastest growing sector of the bike industry and the main purchaser of an e-bike, the demographics, are baby boomers. So knowing that our baby boomers are either ditching a car or deciding to go further into a national park or a public land near them, they’re getting more exercise. That’s awesome. They’re staying active. They’re helping actually reduce congestion in parts where traffic may have been really heavy near a trail head or a visitor center by being able to go a little bit further without having to worry about having the energy or the ability to make it back. So being able to expand these opportunities so grandma can come for the ride, or a person who might not be able to push a bike in normal way.
Like you were saying, class two, the throttle makes it great for folks who might not be able to just get it started for whatever reason. We think that it is expanding those opportunities and creating more access for great rides is so important. And that’s what e-bikes are really for. I mean if you just want to go fast, that’s great too. We don’t have any problem with that, but knowing that more people are going to get out in our public lands, experience why they’re so special because of an e-bike. I think that’s the best story out there.
Armando Roggio: This may sound funny, but I think an industry can make you feel good about what you do. And I think the electric bike industry is one of those. We are helping folks reduce car trips, enjoy the outdoors and stay relatively more healthy. It’s just a good feeling to be involved with electric bikes. I hope you agree with that.
Noa Banayan: I sure do. I wouldn’t still be here if I didn’t, but I fully agree. Yeah. I think so many people are seeing our public lands through their nose pressed against the window of their car. And e-bikes are going to be the thing that changes that so you can actually smell the air around you and feel what’s so special about them.
An Ongoing Effort
Armando Roggio: You’ve really given us a good overview of this framework and some of the resulting policies. Are there any things that I haven’t asked about that are important for the listeners to know about this directive?
Noa Banayan: Sure, yeah. So like I said, this is an ongoing process. E-bike access opened up on August 30th on all public lands. And it’s still going to take some time for your local BLM unit or your favorite national park to figure out exactly where and how bikes are going to have access in their lands. If you want to stay updated on how that process moves and be able to offer your input. I highly recommend checking out our website at PeopleforBikes.org, all one word. And signing up to stay alert on e-bikes. We have a specific e-bike news list that we’ve been updating with these announcements and as we hear from more parks units and other lands units, we’ll be making sure that our lists are aware of opportunities they have to use their voice to talk about e-bikes.
Noa Banayan: And I just want to again highlight, it’s awesome that the government’s coming around to something that is being used and being integrated into so many of our lives with e-bikes. The fact that we are finally getting the federal definition as it relates to access right now, all of we’ve got before this policy was the consumer safety product commissions definition of an e-bike, which has nothing to do with where can anybody go. So this first step in making access more available to more people on bikes, it’s not something we should take lightly and it’s certainly something we’re excited about and excited to see how it goes.
Armando Roggio: Noa, thank you so much for being on the podcast with me.
Noa Banayan: Thanks so much for having me.
Armando Roggio: I also want to thank you for listening to this, The Electric Bike Podcast from EVELO. I hope you learned something about this new US Department of Interior directive, and I hope you’ll continue to pay attention to the policies impacting electric bikes. I would also like you to check out The Complete Electric Bike Buyer’s Guide on the EVELO website. While you are there you can also get a free bike, fit consultation. Thank you again. Take care.